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Analysis

New minister brings fresh mindset to Israeli education

Fight for post wasn’t just between Piron and Sa’ar and their parties — it was also over how, what and why we teach our children

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Israeli students at Beit Ezekiel elementary school (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Israeli students at Beit Ezekiel elementary school (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

For more than a week, negotiations between the Likud-Beytenu faction and the Jewish Home party were deadlocked over the identity of Israel’s next education minister. Finally, last Wednesday, the decision was made: Gideon Sa’ar — out; Shai Piron — in.

Sa’ar and Piron represent two different mindsets, both in their stated political ambitions and with regard to the Education Ministry. What was partly a battle of strength between two parties, then, will determine the direction of the country’s education system.

The incoming Piron, a former teacher and principal given the second spot on Yesh Atid’s list, views education as the most important thing in life. In contrast, Likud’s Sa’ar, who will instead now head the Interior Ministry, saw the post at least in part as a steppingstone toward heading his party, and the country.

In December, Sa’ar’s Education Ministry proudly claimed that Israeli students had climbed to seventh place in the world on their math results, and to 13th in the sciences.

The minister, pleased, attributed the high rankings to a “new organizational culture” in the educational system, and claimed that allocating extra hours for study, and developing curricula based on international testing standards, were responsible for the improved results.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Outgoing education minister Gideon Sa’ar (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

But to some, Piron among them, the outgoing minister was taking pride in what is actually the biggest problem afflicting the system — the emphasis placed on standardized tests and results at the expense of educating the next generation.

“We need to deal with education and not only the education system,” Piron wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday night, looking ahead to his new ministerial role. “We can’t allow the education system to be a system obsessively dealing with measurement,” he elaborated — striking an immediate contrast with Sa’ar.

Piron presented his core educational values — ideas like Zionism, Judaism, and love of humankind, as well as the imperatives to strengthen schools at the bottom end of the socioeconomic ladder and to recruit quality teachers.

Though grades and academic excellence are important, he wrote in his Facebook post, they “can’t contradict the focus on educating toward values, building a complex personality that is capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.”

Rabbi Shay Piron (photo credit: Nissim Lev)
Rabbi Shai Piron (photo credit: Nissim Lev)

In similar vein, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid stated during the election campaign that he would like to see students sit for only three matriculation exams at the end of high school — English, math and Hebrew.

For his part, Piron has called for the number of nationwide standardized tests to be reduced, but also emphasized that the other subjects would still be needed to graduate. Subjects like history and science are no less important than math, but could be graded by the teachers and not by the ministry, he suggested.

But speaking to Army Radio last week, Dr. Shimshon Shoshani, the director general of the Education Ministry, said that although Piron’s values are important, Sa’ar was right when it came to running a country’s education system.

When you have the ministry with the second-largest budget, you need to be able to set goals and reach them, said Shoshani. You have to measure your success and failures, he stressed, explaining the basic idea behind standardized testing.

What’s more, said Shoshani, Sa’ar had started to cut back on the number of matriculation tests available, removing tests taken by only a few students, like chess.

The contrasting positions and ideas of Piron and Sa’ar aren’t theirs alone; there are plenty of teachers and parents who side with each of them. It’s clear both believe their way is the best for the students, and the country.

But after four years with Sa’ar at the helm, now Piron is plainly going to change direction. Time will tell if his is a better route to success.

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